When we are young, time is like rich soil, in which we plant for the future. Aspiring entrepreneurs should be especially conscious of their first career choices, as it can be the experience they need to prepare for their own ventures. As the academic year closes out, seniors across the country are evaluating job offers and looking around for the best opportunities to start their careers.
Some students will look for a great tech name, some for the best exposure to their favorite industry and others for whatever job pays the most. But many ask what is the best job versus the best first job. Instead, first jobs should be stepping stones — a way to capture knowledge quickly and move on, versus a position that offers immediate gratification in the form of compensation, benefits or a title. This is especially important for future entrepreneurs.
If you are a young person planning to be an entrepreneur, here are some tips and considerations for evaluating your first job. I’m coming at this both as an entrepreneur myself and as someone involved in recruiting through my work. Think of these first job categories as paths meandering to a beautiful beach — they each lead to the same beach, but they will each offer different sights and experiences along the way.
1. Big tech
The “traditional” tech giants offer opportunities to work on well-funded experiments, applications with millions of users and network with brilliant individuals. However, working at one of the “Big Five” is no longer a risk or particularly entrepreneurial and instead represents a conservative career choice. Joining the already largest companies in the country will no longer likely lead to wealth from stock options, but experience and brand power opportunities are hard to overstate. Being involved in recruiting for most of my life, I can tell you that the Big Five are incredible brand signals. Both employers and venture capitalists use these signals to offload their due diligence, and having those signals is incredibly valuable.
2. Big consulting
What perhaps should be called the “work your a@# off” path, large consulting firms offer young professionals the opportunity to tackle complex problems for large employers, usually reserved for much later career management. Firms like McKinsey, Bain, Deloitte and Accenture give their clients a volume of brainpower that would be impossible for them to hire directly. Having your first job at these types of firms means you might be working on a complex supply chain issue or a branding concept for a national retailer very soon after you step out into the world of work. This type of experience is hard to come by, and building a successful portfolio of these projects is an excellent professional stepping stone.
3. The hot startup
We are often told to not do “what everyone else is doing.” But when it comes to startups, the crowd has a certain wisdom. Traction and exposure beget more traction and exposure, so it’s not a bad idea to pay attention to what are currently considered hot startups. Read up on top startup listicles like those on LinkedIn or AngelList. Be agnostic as to what kind of job you can land at these hot companies. Jobs at rapidly growing companies evolve quickly, and titles mean little. Jump in, gain experience and make an impact. Please pay special attention to the quality of their funding sources, as this is an essential indicator of their stability and future financing availability. Meaning, for example, give weight to startups associated with top venture capital firms.
4. Your friend’s couch
I call this a “proximity bet,” a career gamble that physical exposure to a concentrated network of talent might lead to success. Akin to a young actor making their way to L.A. and “seeing what happens,” young entrepreneurs make this proximity bet for good reason: sometimes, it works. At any given coffee shop around San Francisco, you’ll find people playing the same game, and there is real power in this. So brush up your pitch deck and go for it. But be awawre this direct “make or break” path may have the highest risk.
5. Jobs in the money
100 hour weeks are not quite in the past for finance companies like Goldman Sachs. If you have the opportunity to join a large investment bank, hedge fund, or venture capital firm, expect to grind. I include these “jobs in the money” as best first jobs for entrepreneurs because they do not necessarily lead to a career in finance. People who understand finance understand business, and so a financial career offers incredible optionality. It is very common to see people come out of finance and become startup founders, not only because finance is good for wealth accumulation, but because finance is agnostic to industry. If you work in finance, you can translate these skills into whatever industry or practice area you choose to pursue.
6. Sales and customer service
Understanding people’s needs and learning how to address them truly is the foundational learning of most successful entrepreneurs. Sales positions involve pitching a product, which is helpful, but more importantly, they give you exposure to lots of external people. Especially when you are young and coming out of school, sales roles are great at quickly taking you out of your comfort zone and forcing you to provide value to real people. Customer service positions are also excellent stepping stone positions that teach you problem-solving, principles of product-market fit, and how to deal with people positively — all especially valuable skills for entrepreneurship.
You can use your skills and time to offer services immediately, no matter your level of experience. The path of “solopreneurship” doesn’t presuppose having a plan for a big business, but instead focuses on the immediate generation of income based on your own efforts. Gig work falls into this category and franchise-based entrepreneurship, which I tried my hand at personally while in college. This is the “just start already” or “bootstrapping” mentality, which does not require a gatekeeper to grant you access – whether that gatekeeper is a venture capitalist or a name-brand employer. There are no limits to any of these paths, and direct entrepreneurship/solopreneurship is no different — this can be a path you take for a few months, a side hustle to make ends meet or a lifetime of self-created business — the choice is yours.
Successful entrepreneurs come from all walks of life, all professions and from every age. Remember that no job that you take will ever prevent you from becoming an entrepreneur. Some paths may take you there immediately, some will build wealth so that you can do it later, some will give you skills and experience, and others may give you the free time you need to develop your ideas. Take the time to consciously choose your overall trajectory so that you can drive forward with self-determination.